The Best Books the Jezebel Staff Read in 2019

The Best Books the Jezebel Staff Read in 2019

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images)
Year in Review 2019Year in Review 2019Remembering the year that you, me, and everyone we know was canceled. Rest in peace

From your favorite Kardashian bloggers, here are the books that we enjoyed most this year. This isn’t a ranked list and we didn’t have any criteria for inclusion; rather, these are just some books that we liked and think you might like too.


Sarah K. Broom, The Yellow House

It has been impossible to read a single book all the way through this year, for a myriad of reasons, and this simple fact has frustrated me to no end. Sarah Broom’s memoir about her family and New Orleans got me out of my reading rut by reminding me that memoir, a much-maligned genre, can be devastating when done right. —Megan Reynolds

Miriam Toews, Women Talking

Women Talking is hard to read in a good way. The novel based on the true story of a Bolivian Mennonite community in which men in positions of authority used animal tranquilizers to drug and rape women and children, then tried to chalk the attacks up to ghosts or the women’s own sin. The novel is set after the attacks when the women must choose whether to stay and do nothing, fight, or flee. Their questions and disagreements around what to do with the monsters among them are layered, sometimes hilarious, and absolutely heartbreaking. The women’s conversation is ultimately not about the men but about where to put their collective trauma and how to rebuild trust in an unsafe world where even falling asleep in one’s own bed is risky. I found myself both not wanting to put it down and wishing it didn’t feel so true. —Emily Alford

Kimberly King Parsons, Black Light

Four months after reading this collection of calmly bizarre stories, I’m still thinking about them. Is this what it means to be haunted? Parsons, who was longlisted for a National Book Award for this collection, does what her debut book’s title implies to her characters, illuminating what’s hiding in plain sight about the weird kids, cheating spouses, queer girls who populate her stories. In my intro to my interview with Parsons, I wrote: “I felt a strange simultaneity when reading most of Black Light’s stories: I didn’t want them to end but couldn’t wait for the next one. Rarely is it such a joy to spend time with people who are so fucked up.” Still true, and I can’t wait for her to give us more. —Rich Juzwiak

Nina Leger, The Collection

This French novella is the book I can’t get out of my head, which is fitting, because it is, marginally at least, about memory. More so, it’s about dicks. The book’s protagonist obsessively stages no-strings sex with strangers whom she meets on the street. She isn’t motivated by the feeling of sex so much as the opportunity to dispassionately observe various penises. She then creates a “memory palace” of these penises, an imaginary building that she can walk through like a museum. It’s a thoroughly original conceptual literary exercise in the “female gaze.”—Tracy Clark-Flory

Madeline ffitch, Stay and Fight

Madeline ffitch’s first novel opens with a man who will not cut it in the wilderness complaining to his girlfriend Helen about his redneck boss: “Like I’m gay if I want to talk about anything besides tits and ass, if I consider women to be human beings,” he tells her. The pair have just moved from Seattle to a 20-acre plot in Appalachia to live off the land, mostly at this behest, and the romance of the plan has worn off. By the second page of this surprising novel, the boyfriend has taken off. Helen remains, eventually building a ramshackle house on the isolated property which she shares, somewhat out of desperation, with two women and their infant son. Stay and Fight is sort of a pioneer novel, detailing the animal infestations and weather patterns that make the difference between subsistence and disaster; it’s also a sensitively rendered rebuttal to the popular caricature of people who populate “real America.” I can’t recommend it enough. —Molly Osberg

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth

Set in the remote Russian province of Kamchatka, Phillips’s novel follows the aftermath of the kidnapping of two sisters after a strange man lures them into his car. What follows is not a typical dead girl story, but instead chapter after chapter about the local women who are affected by the kidnapping, both directly and indirectly. The novel unpacks the lives of these women and their relationship with the crime while teasing out the common thread of violence that runs through their lives. Violence here comes in many forms and, like the bleak landscape that serves as the story’s background—both constant and defining. It’s a beautifully written book that refocuses the standard crime narrative on a richer, more empathetic telling. —Stassa Edwards

Jayson Greene, Once More We Saw Stars

Recognizing that my selection may be biased—I’ve had the pleasure of knowing the author for a few years now—no book in 2019 hit me harder than Greene’s memoir, Once More We Saw Stars. My year has been overwhelmed with loss and grief in a way I won’t expand upon here, and his gorgeous memoir gave me (and many others, judging by its success) a new, empathetic, healing language in which to navigate tragedy through memoir and the unimaginable pain of losing his daughter. I am so grateful to have it read it. —Maria Sherman

P. E. Moskowitz, The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent

An incisive look at fascism’s co-opting of the “free speech debate,” woven with P.E. Moskowitz’s traumatic, life-changing run-in with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia. We have been taught so many lies about free speech: what it is, how it works. Throughout the book, Moskowitz walks through different talking points in the free speech debate—the internet, college campuses, protests, and weaves them into a complex, centuries-long history of the concept. I had no idea, before reading this, that lawmakers and the police used the concept of free speech as early as the turn of the 20th century to subjugate leftist organizers and protect imperialist war-practices. —Joan Summers

Rachel Monroe, Savage Appetites

I am an admittedly bad true crime consumer. Yes, I used to listen to My Favorite Murder. Yes, I will numb my brain with a Snapped! marathon. But I’ve been craving a comprehensive, smart analysis of what draws women to all the gory pleasures of true crime and I got it in Monroe’s nonfiction Savage Appetites, which doesn’t try to wrap up the phenomenon in a simple, shiny bow. —Hazel Cills

Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

In an age when even digital detoxes are framed as temporary weekend retreats that’s purpose is to increase our work capacity and productivity, Odell, an artist and writer, proposes something else to repair our shattered brains and reclaim some of the humanity that we lose when our lives are built around optimization: doing nothing. To Odell, that means putting down our phones and “rerouting and deepening one’s attention to place”—where we live, the flora and fauna around us, the people in our lives. How to Do Nothing made me want to log off Twitter forever and pick up birdwatching, or learn how to fly fish. But more importantly, it made me ask myself, what can we collectively accomplish if we’re able to retrain our attention on the things that matter? —Esther Wang

Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations

Before Toni Morrison left the world this year, she published her final book, this collection of personal, existential, and literary interrogations. It’s not only a thread of dense thought exercises, but also a journey into the creation of her most indelibly American works, like Tar Baby and my favorite book, The Bluest Eye. She writes about the process of defining and cataloging black art, the limits of white American feminism, the powerful ritual of memory… but that summary doesn’t and can’t at all capture the intensity of her writing. I love this book because it showed a master at work on her own playground, and there were many parts of it I didn’t comprehend but had fun trying to. I can’t think of better last words. —Clover Hope

Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

Watchmen, which opened with a shocking recreation of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 and took as its supervillain white supremacy itself, wrapped my year back around to where it started: thinking about Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. The simplest way to describe this book is that it’s about the lives of young black women in New York and Philadelphia around the turn of the 20th century, but a straightforward summary doesn’t capture the richness of this book. American history is frequently told in a way that privileges the privileged and ignores the violence that runs through the nation’s story like a river. Hartman’s book turns what we call history inside out, doing what can only be called conjuring up lives that weren’t “lost” to the record but deliberately omitted in ways large and small. It’s a demanding book, not only in the sense of its subject matter, but because it is so formally ambitious and appropriately experimental. It’s not meant to go down smooth and just as easily slip from the mind; it’s meant to make the reader consider alternatives. I’ve been thinking about it off and on all year. It’s also beautifully written. —Kelly Faircloth

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DISCUSSION

My favorite novel of 2019 was The Need by Helen Phillips, about a woman working on an archeological dig who finds several anachronistic items. Then her home is invaded by a stranger in a deer mask, and then things get weirder from there. It’s creepy and riveting.

My favorite nonfiction book:  Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden, about growing up rich (her father cofounded a shoe empire with her uncle Steve; yep, THAT Steve Madden), biracial, queer, and confused.